love the theory
behind these wordy pictures
want to join seth’s club
I learned to fly last night. And I learned why bleeding in the gutters can be good.
No, this is not a morality tale about drugs, or an exaltation about shooting people. It’s about comic books!
Frankly, though, I’ve never really been interested in comic books. When I was a kid I might have picked up some Donald Duck thing or maybe something about Wonder Woman, but that was about it. I’d flip through it, find it totally boring, and return to my Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume or Lois Lowry with a sigh of relief.
I’ve been hearing a lot about comics lately – or graphic novels, if you will – and I thought maybe I should take a peek at them. Not out of a desire to be part of a cool crowd (when have graphic novel readers ever been a cool crowd?) but out of a desire to prove to myself that anything involving art (my major in college was art history) and writing (well, duh, you know I like that stuff) should be something near and dear to my heart. So I casually mentioned Maus to my brother-in-law the other day. He’s a comic book reading guy so he let me borrow Maus and it’s sequel. They sat on my counter for a few days and I finally picked up a copy and started to read. It wasn’t love at first sight, but as I started to get into the rhythm of the story I enjoyed the nuances that make graphic novels unique.
I enjoyed the staccato nature of moving from frame to frame. I enjoyed that even on a page with eight or more frames, each frame could stand alone as its own piece of art or story. I enjoyed being dragged along, or slowed down by the pacing – being lead around by these invisible fingers carrying me along without any effort on my part at all.
It was still hard for me to read, though. I didn’t know how to coincide the words with the art. Do you take a quick glance at the picture, then read the captions? Do you read the captions, then use the pictures as a guide? I felt awkward. So I stopped reading for a few days.
After a chat with my brother-in-law, though, about what I liked about Maus, he suggested another graphic novel – this one basically a comic book about comic books. It’s kind of an art history text combined with an art theory text, combined with a history of comics, combined with a dictionary (both of imagery and words). It also gives you the ground rules of comics – how line and shape and frame size and “gutters” are used to engage and manipulate the reader. The book juxtaposes Japanese comics with Western comics and explains how both use completely different techniques that are based on very similar philosophies. Simply enough, it’s called Understanding Comics.
It reminds me of a college course that I would have never elected to take on my own, but would have taken because a) all the other classes were full b) my boyfriend was in it or c) I was in love with the professor. Once in the class I would have been shocked by how interesting it was and how much I enjoyed the topic.
I feel a little swept away by comics right now. A little sad that it’s taken me this long to discover them, and a little excited that I finally have. I am so ready to take an essay test on why they’re cool.
You want me to explain what the first two sentences of this post mean? (Unless you already know, which you might, because I’m new to this and I don’t know how many people there are out there who actually know all the graphic novel terms. Maybe everyone except me. If that’s the case, bear with me here, I’m excited.)
Learning to fly… well, the spaces between the frames in comics are called gutters. And when you read from frame to frame you fly over the gutters. Your brain fills in time and space and action so that moving from frame to frame makes sense. None of what I just said probably makes any sense, but to me, right at this very moment, it sounds just fine.
Bleeding in gutters… this is something that was started in Japanese comics. It’s when a frame doesn’t have four sides and the art bleeds into the end of the page (or maybe the next frame? I’m not sure about that). So, by bleeding to the end of the pages, it bleeds in the gutter so to speak. It’s a great way to express time.
Keep in mind, these are new ideas to me, and I may be simplifying and/or mangling them. But they still seem pretty cool, don’t they?
When I was younger, it would have killed me to study the “science” behind something before jumping into it headlong to discover it for myself. So this is a kind of heresy to my immaturity, reading about how to understand comics before actually reading any of them. But having a background (however incomplete and theoretical) makes the prospect of finishing Maus truly exciting. And I’ve borrowed Batman and the Watchmen. We’ll see how it goes. Right now I’m in love with the theory. I’m in love with the marriage of art and language – at least the idea of it. I hope it translates to loving the comics, too. You never know, though. I’m fascinated by the theory behind dadaism, but there are only so many times you can stare at a urinal and sigh about it being great art.
That’s a whole different post, though, isn’t it?